My father was a toolmaker and union organizer who, for many years, headed the Rockford, Ill. Labor Council while my mother was serving five terms as head of the Women’s Auxiliary of the United Auto Workers. Dad worked as a machinist and my mother as a waitress and clerk in a local jewelry store until my dad retired and joined a couple of buddies to buy a bar. They both worked until the day they died because they had to; their union work then wasn’t a path to wealth, but a calling.
That was then. Today’s union officials don’t end up tending bar or waiting on tables. They spend as much or more time taking care of themselves than they do worrying about the needs and desires of their members, thinking nothing of drawing salaries that even the corporate officials who sit across the negotiating table from them might envy.
There was a time when unions actually represented their members, fought injustice and forced employers to improve working conditions and helped them get a fair deal from companies that took advantage of them, but that time seems long past.
In recent decades union membership has fallen steadily, not because of what labor leaders like to term the anti-union bias of Republican politicians but because of their own excesses and inability to deliver anything real to their members. That’s why in states like Wisconsin, where membership in public employee unions is voluntary rather than mandatory, members flee their unions in droves.
There have, of course, always been crooked labor leaders just as there have always been crooked politicians and business executives. But as their ability or willingness to deliver much of value to their members has waned, it seems that labor unions have become a business primarily benefiting their officers and members of an inner circle.
Anyone who doubts this need only glance at the data the Labor Department compiles from reports unions must file reflecting the income of union officials and compare that data with reports of CEO compensation. Labor officials like to cherry-pick and rail against those CEOs who are wildly compensated in comparison to those who work for their firms, but it turns out that on an average, those who head U.S. unions actually make more than their business counterparts. This doesn’t seem to bother liberal “populists” like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who bases his politics on the “greed” of business leaders while remaining silent on the fact that those representing the workers he claims to admire are picking their pockets to subsidize an extravagant lifestyle.
It turns out that last year, the average annual salary for all CEOs was just shy of $195,000 while the average for all union leaders was a bit more than $250,000. Some union leaders and corporate CEOs made a lot more, of course, but these averages tell us something about organized labor in today’s world: Unions may have far fewer members and do far less for those they do have than was once the case, but their leaders are doing quite well.
Back in the ‘90s when Hillary Clinton as first lady was leading the battle for what was then known as “Clinton Care,” I asked an AFL-CIO union president why organized labor was so enthusiastic about a government takeover of health care when negotiating better health benefits was one of the few things today’s unions could do for their members and was, in fact, perhaps the major benefit they offered to members. He readily acknowledged that much of what unions could accomplish for their members had already been accomplished, sometimes with government assistance and sometimes through collective bargaining and employer competition for skilled labor.
He also agreed that impressive health benefits were among the most attractive benefits of union membership and giving up the ability to provide such benefits might seem illogical, but “not once you realize that today’s labor leaders are essentially social democrats more committed to expanding government’s role in the lives of their members than in providing benefits.”
That said it all. It wasn’t until Obamacare came along and passed with labor’s support that union members learned their leaders had made what amounted to a bargain with the devil to surrender the very benefits they claimed they had fought for in favor of an expanded government plan with fewer benefits.
That discovery, along with the knowledge that they are paying dues to give more and more to their leaders for less and less, might explain why so few American workers today feel compelled to join up.
• David A. Keene is editor at large at The Washington Times.
Copyright © 2017 The Washington Times, LLC.